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Lawmakers welcome school aid as East Greenbush CSD expands pre-K program

Pre-K students at Red Mill Elementary School in East Greenbush
Lucas Willard
Pre-K students at Red Mill Elementary School in East Greenbush

Two state legislators joined school officials in East Greenbush Thursday to celebrate an increase in New York state aid to the local school district.

Here, at the Red Mill Elementary School, students are preparing for their educational careers. The district is benefitting from an increase in state education aid. The state budget includes more than $34 billion in education aid – the highest amount ever.

Outside the elementary school doors, Democratic State Assemblyman John McDonald and Republican State Senator Jake Ashby celebrated the record amount of Foundation Aid going to the district.

McDonald, of the 108th district, says Foundation Aid is unrestricted state dollars that districts can use for a variety of purposes.

“This aid is provided with no strings attached. By that I mean, each school district, whether it’s here in East Greenbush, whether it’s in the City of Troy, City of Cohoes, wherever it may be….they have competent administrators, they’ve got very committed volunteers on the school board who know what their districts need,” said McDonald.

In East Greenbush, the funding has gone into boosting pre-K through a partnership with Questar III BOCES. The pre-K program in East Greenbush has been growing. An increase in aid this year has allowed the district to add two pre-K classes, serving about 100 students.

Senator Ashby, from the 43rd district, also supports the aid increase. He said the boost in state funding is needed to improve outcomes for students after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need as a state, and as leaders, to not forget the detriments that have impacted us all throughout the pandemic, and this is one way that we can continue to climb out and lead,” said Ashby.

Red Mill Elementary Principal Helen Squillace said the Foundation Aid increase of more than $4 million funds Pre-K programs as well as early intervention services – both of which are essential in building reading and math skills for young students.

“The progress that we’ve seen underscores the importance of the continued funding for our Pre-K and our early intervention services. This has really been a game-changer for us,” said Squillace.

Questar III Superintendent Dr. Gladys Cruz said the BOCES serves school districts in Rensselaer and Columbia Counties, and has been operating pre-K programs in the region for two decades. She says recent increases in Foundation Aid have boosted Pre-K enrollment by 120 percent over the last four years.

“These district-based class programs prepare students intellectually, socially, and psychologically for kindergarten and beyond. They set the state for future learning,” said Cruz.

But while the lawmakers were celebrating the school funding increase for this year, East Greenbush Superintendent Jeff Simons warns district residents that sustainability is key.

“It’s very important for our community to be able to understand that the aid that supports the student programs that we’ve created continues to flow to the district in the future so we can provide stability and learning opportunities for all of the students here in East Greenbush,” he said.

State officials are anticipating belt-tightening ahead.

New York State Comptroller Tom Dinapoli says the state faces budget gaps totaling more than $36 billion through 2027.

Both lawmakers say they’re committed to fully funding Foundation Aid into the future.

“We want to continue to make our commitment, plain and simple,” said McDonald.

“It has to be a priority, regardless of those concerns,” said Ashby.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.